A firsthand look at a diet fad that -much like your hunger when you’re on one- refuses to go away.
"I'm a mum with two kids, and when I get sluggish, I do a juice fast. My skin clears, I lose a few pounds, and have less bloat. The clouds in my mind vanish."— Marjan Sarshar, Owner of Kreation Juicery
Four years ago an actress friend of mine went on a juice fast. Her observations? The drinks were nasty, but she lost a lot of weight and did, in fact, feel “cleaner” afterwards. She made the experience sound magical. I was skeptical. The only other person I’d heard talking about juice fasting at that time was Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress who named her child after supermarket-bought produce and always seems to be speaking only to an audience of women rich enough to live like she does. As a general rule, I am against anything that Gwyneth Paltrow is for. I wrote the whole cleansing thing off as a fad. But now it’s four years later and the juicing thing refuses to die. Juice-based businesses have popped up in many places. Juice-fasting proponents claim that fasting helps with weight loss, rids the body of toxins, reduces cancer risk, aids digestion and boosts the immune system (though most of these claims haven’t been scientifically proved). My skepticism gave way to curiosity. I’m active, I usually eat healthy foods…but let’s just say I could lose a bit of weight. My problem is willpower. Which is why the idea of a juice cleanse appealed to me. Health professionals say that you shouldn’t think of a juice cleanse as a long-term weight loss solution, and I didn’t. Instead, I was drawn to the challenge. Could I go three days without food? For most of my life, I hadn’t gone much more than three hours between meals. If I could complete a cleanse—going 72 hours without chewing anything—the improvement to my willpower would far exceed any temporary weight loss I might experience. Added bonus: I’d finally have something to talk to Gwyneth Paltrow about if we were ever trapped in a lift together.
Choosing the right cleanse
Many believe that the modern juicing trend stems back to the 1990s when, according to the New York Times, a Scientologist and entrepreneur named Peter Glickman repackaged a 1940s diet called The Master Cleanse. In it, people forgo solid foods for between 10 and 30 days, instead drinking a beverage consisting of water, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, lemons and sea salt. (There are many variations of the diet, and some allow the consumption of limited solids such as apples.)
I’d tried the drink. It was horrible. I knew going into this fast that there was no way I was going to subsist solely on that yellowy yak. There had to be more palatable options.
So I contacted the Kreation Juicery, one of many juice-based businesses that have popped up in recent years. Kreation sells pressed juices in a bottle—an important attribute. Prepackaged juices save novices like me from the trouble of purchasing enormous piles of fruits and vegetables, spending hours chopping, seeding and juicing them, and losing even more time washing the juicer and its many components—all for a drink you down in less than a minute.
Kreation recommended its three-day “Reboot” cleanse, which it claims can help jumpstart healthier eating, lead to better relaxation and sleep and help improve your energy levels.
“I am a mum with two kids, and when I get sluggish, I do a juice fast,” Kreation owner Marjan Sarshar told me. She emphasised that she was speaking only about her own experience with the diet, which may differ from what others feel. “I’m more energetic. My skin clears, I lose a few pounds, and have less bloat. My tongue looks better—it’s more pink. I feel light, fresh, and can make better decisions. The clouds in my mind vanish.”
I was given 18 bottles of juice (six per day) and six bottles of water (three peppermint, three lemon.) The juices ranged from the delicious “Peaceful” (pineapple and apple) and “Trinity Twist” (consisting of the trinity of lemon, apples, carrots and beets) to the palatable “Relax” (lots of carrots) to the unfortunate “Protein Power” (vanilla, dates and almonds), which tastes like it was shot out of a wood chipper. I could also drink as much non-bottled water as I wanted. Otherwise, nada.
The three days that followed were a blur of enthusiasm, hunger, nervousness, hunger, self-doubt, hunger, resentment (at others eating), hunger and finally, triumph. And did I mention hunger? There was plenty of that. Though some details are blurry (probably from the hunger), I can summarise juice fasting in five stages.
Stage 1: Optimism
I felt pretty upbeat as I left the Kreation juice bar. Though a little nervous, I was excited about taking on a new challenge. I hadn’t eaten anything since the day before, so when I got back to the car I opened a bottle of “Green #1”—a mixture of romaine lettuce, apple, mint and some other stuff. I was surprised at how good the drink tasted. I finished it before I got home. I had another juice mid-morning—also tasty. Good start. I remember thinking, “this won’t be bad.” Which, of course, is exactly what people think right before something goes bad.
Stage 2: Hunger ("extreme hunger," to be exact)
Stage 1 lasts three hours. By lunchtime I was hungrier than usual, and after lunch I was starving. When my wife asked me to accompany her to a presentation she was giving, I leapt at the chance, partly to support her, but also because it would give me something to get my mind off of food. All I could think about was food—the food in our home, the food in restaurants, even the food my dog ate. I craved distraction because, not to get all technical on you, but my body was freaking the hell out.
“Your body was entering panic/survival mode,” said Jen Reilly, a wellness dietician based in Washington D.C. who recommends detox diets for patients who want to eat healthier. I’d asked her and Dr. Mike Roussell, author of The 6 Pillars of Nutrition, to explain what was happening to me on a physiological level. They both agreed that the sudden drop in calories can send a shock to your system—one that shows up as extreme hunger.
Anyway, here’s the thing I didn’t know about the place my wife's presentation was held: It serves beer. Before my wife’s presentation, I drank a bottle of juice while staring at beautiful taps of delicious golden beer. I fantasised about downing a three cans of cold nectar while my wife talked, cheering for good points shushing anyone in the children’s section who breathed. But no. I sat still, slowly polishing off the peppery last bits of Kreation’s take on the Master Cleanse (which is not as awful-tasting as the real Master Cleanse), trying not to be too sullen.
Stage 3: Uprising
By the morning of Day 2, I’d lost 3 kilos. I should have been happy, but wasn’t for two reasons: 1) far too many people had told me that most of the weight loss would be temporary, and 2) I was hungry. Right about this time, my stomach kicked the discomfort up a notch and began cramping. It was the first of about a dozen cramping sessions I’d experience during the fast.
There are two schools of thought on the cause of the cramps. Reilly attributed the sensations to my stomach acid wanting to digest something but not having anything available. Roussell, meanwhile, believes that the cause of the cramps was that I was consuming way more vitamins than usual.
I also had short, intermittent headaches. Roussell said headaches are common on restricted-calorie diets. Reilly said the headaches could have been caused by “mobilised toxins” floating throughout my body or by low blood-sugar.
But the most difficult part physically—and I’ll put this as delicately as I can—was how much Sports Illustrated I read. Sports Illustrated is my official read of sit-down bathroom trips.
Speaking as politely as possible, Reilly said this was my body getting the “junk” out of its system. Roussell again attributed the reaction to an increased consumption in vitamins. Writers for juicing blogs and health sites say frequent Sports Illustrated reading happens because sugar from the juices draws water in the intestines, while others point out a more common sense reason: if only liquid goes in, then only liquid comes out, and because the body doesn’t have to break down any food everything moves faster.
I experienced some changes mentally, too. On the drive to the library, my wife asked me a simple question, and it took several seconds for me to respond. The small hamster wheel between my ears was turning way slower than usual. Reilly and Roussell said low blood-sugar can cause you to think and react more slowly, which Reilly assured me isn’t harmful —as long as it’s temporary.
Stage 4: Doubt
Late in the afternoon on Day 2, I began to seriously question whether I could make it all three days. I started bargaining. Is it cheating if I have just one apple? I was miserable with hunger. The juices gave me energy but not satisfaction. Kreation warns customers about this sensation, saying as only a California company could that, as the fast goes on, “you may find yourself becoming slightly more sensitive.” Which is like saying, “If your airplane falls out of the sky, you might find yourself becoming slightly more concerned.”
Though I normally don’t knock off until 11, I put myself to bed around 7 p.m. that second night. I thought that maybe I could sleep through the next 48 hours like a deep space traveler, and when I woke up it would all be over and I could eat a burger the size of a football. That didn’t work.
So as I tossed and turned in bed, I looked forward to doing the one thing that had helped me push through toughest bouts of hunger during the fast: post a morning update to Facebook. Looking back, the daily messages I’d sent to friends and family—and the encouragement I’d received in response—may have been the main reason I didn’t quit. I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Turns out, that’s not uncommon. I’d unwittingly stumbled onto a practice that economists call “pre-commitment,” which is when a party in conflict (in this case with myself) strengthens its position by limiting its options. The guy who came up with that idea—Thomas Scheller—went on to win the Nobel Prize.
Stage 5: Triumph
By Day 3 I was down 5 kilos —mostly water weight, according to Reilly and Roussell, though probably a little bit of fat. More importantly, I didn’t feel awful.
Day 3 is widely viewed as the breakthrough day by cleansing advocates. It sure was for me. I felt less “sensitive,” worked a full day with my usual amount of energy, and while I was still hungry, it was less intense than it had been on the previous two days.
Both Reilly and Roussell said it takes the body around three days to adjust to new patterns of calorie consumption. On Day 1 and Day 2 it is still trying to figure out where all the sandwiches went. By Day 3 the body knows where it’s getting its calories from (juice and stored fat) and adjusts accordingly.
I’ve been told by a few veteran juicers that if you can make it to Day 3, you can go many more. Kreation’s Sarshar said she has gone 21 days. I had no reason to go longer.
A few hours after I passed the 72-hour mark, I ate my first solid food: A hot dog. Not just any hot dog —the best hot dog any man has ever eaten. My jaw hurt from chewing, and clearly on some level I had missed the point, but it was glorious.
Nearly two weeks after the cleanse I was still down 3 kilos. I’d put the rest back on almost immediately—that pesky water weight, as Reilly and Roussell said.
It took about 48 hours for my body to adjust back.
But besides the weight loss, there have been some far more interesting—and hopefully, more lasting—changes. Today I still feel more conscious of what I eat and drink. I have always equated protein with energy, but I now know I can generate enough energy to function well without eating a lot of protein. Or any food, for that matter. So long as it’s for a short period of time.
Roussell said that one reason juice diets are popular is that they have clear rules, and diets with clear rules are easier to adhere to. Since my juice experiment, I’ve found myself following new, simple rules such as “only fruits or vegetables for snacks.” Also, when eating at home, I eat dinner off a salad plate, which is smaller and holds less food. That helps, too.
But I don’t think those are the reasons people like my actress friend and Gwyneth Paltrow get fanatical about juicing. In my experience, the real benefits are not physical. They’re psychological. And not in the way you’d expect.
Three or 30 days spent severely altering your diet is an investment of time, money and—to some degree—suffering. At the end of such a trial—or any test of will—there’s a natural desire for it to mean something. A person wants takeaway. No one wants to think they wasted their time or money or energy on something that didn’t help them become a better person. So they return to eating solids but take up healthier habits.
If there is a magic property to juice fasting, it’s this: illusion.
And for some people, it works.